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Native-born requirement for becoming president dampens dreams

You might think that Jennifer Granholm, Michigan's 43-year-old attorney general and governor-elect, would already be on the Democrats' short list of candidates for a place on their party's national ticket. A graduate of Berkeley and Harvard Law School and a Catholic mother of three, she is a former assistant federal prosecutor. Her considerable political skills and appeal enabled her to trounce two formidable opponents _ former Gov. James Blanchard and Rep. David Bonior, formerly the second-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives _ in the gubernatorial primary, winning 48 percent of the vote.

And although it would be disgracefully sexist to notice the fact, it is a fact that she is attractive. She has won a beauty pageant and appeared as a contestant on The Dating Game.

Although every senator, while shaving or putting on makeup, sees a president in the mirror, legislators are rarely elected president. Only three serving members of Congress _ Garfield, Harding, Kennedy _ have been elected. Governorships are the political parties' principal sources of presidential talent. Eight of the 18 presidents in the 20th century had been governors. Four of the last five had been.

But Granholm will never be on a national ticket because: "No person except a natural born citizen . . . shall be eligible to the office of president." So says the Constitution. And Granholm, although raised in America since age 4, was born in Canada to parents who were not U.S. citizens.

The Constitution's "native born" restriction was a late addition to the document, adopted without a dissenting vote. No reference to it appears in James Madison's notes on the Constitutional Convention's 1787 debates, and it is not mentioned in the great gloss on the Constitution, The Federalist Papers.

But Federalist essays 2 through 5 concern "dangers from foreign force and influence," and essays 20, 43, 66 and 75 also refer to foreign influence on domestic politics. Foreigners _ e.g., Lafayette, Baron von Steuben _ had participated in the winning of the Revolutionary War. And Europe's great powers of the 18th century, monarchies all, maintained agents abroad for the purpose of meddling in other nations' politics.

South Carolina delegate Charles Pinckney worried that "in not many years the fate of Poland may be that of United America." Historian Forrest McDonald explains that delegates repeatedly cited the fate of Poland, where "the secret services of Austria, Prussia and Russia had connived to engineer the election of their own choice for king, whereupon the entirety of Poland was partitioned and divided among those three powers."

Such worries of manipulated elections, understandable in the fluid politics of the founding era, are no longer pertinent. And as for the worry that an immigrant might not be sufficiently marinated in American traditions and values, those who are here by conscious choice often have a better understanding of the traditions and values than do people who are here by accident of birth. Besides, the Constitution could be amended to require that a president have been a citizen for, say, 25 years, and to delete the native-born requirement.

America is, as much as ever, a nation of immigrants, and the native-born requirement is not merely anomalous. In today's context, it has an unpleasantly nativist tang. Besides, it is incongruous that the Constitution permits Bill Clinton to be president, but not Henry Kissinger.

However, the general rule that should govern proposals to amend the Constitution is: Don't. Even when, as in this instance, the part of the Constitution that would be altered is not central to the government's structure or principles of conduct. And even when the alteration would remove an anachronism no longer germane to real possibilities.

So the nation probably should just live with this constitutional provision, whatever the cost to Granholm's career. Her hyper-liberalism, which extends from gun control and affirmative action to a watery form of reparations for slavery, is of, shall we say, Pelosian purity and probably is itself an insuperable impediment to national aspirations.

However, it is unfortunate that the "native born" requirement can dampen the dreams of, say, a Latino teenager who arrived in America 10 years ago and has had his imagination stirred by the saying that in this country any child can grow up to be president.

+ George F. Will is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. +

Washington Post Writers Group